19 December 2011
Savannakhet certainly has the air of a border town. Plenty of people passing through, few staying. It's not unlike Hekou's China-Vietnam border. In Hekou's case, Vietnam's tiny Lao Cai is across the Red River. Here, Thailand's Mukdahan is across the Mekong, and it doesn't look small. Thailand's economy dwarfs that of Laos.
A square near the river tunes you to the place. A Catholic church is at its east end, the river a block away from the west. The buildings are French, arch-fronted, and those not yet restored are crumbling. The town is full of these buildings, snapshots of a variety of architectural styles from years past. The government seems to own all the good stuff.
On the square's south there's a noodle and fried rice joint. It's so Chinese. Plastic seats, soy, vinegar, chilli flakes, four characters, red fish, incense, gourds, TV, fry stand out front, fridge full of veggies, warm beer, whitewash walls, ceiling fan, tiles, wipe clean world. Chinese, Chinese, Chinese. But there's no Chinese being spoken.
In the semi-outdoor bar at the riverside Mekong Hotel, flies cloud, cats bathe themselves, a French salesman talks big about piscines, and a trilingual barman keeps the beer cold. The ceiling fan should be turning languidly, but it isn't.
Across the street, riverside stalls sell hotpot to SUV-loads of Lao locals. They huddle around the flames to keep warm against the cold. Polystyrene boxes of ice cubes dwindle as the night wears on, and bottle caps pile up in the dust.